By Bill Moreau

Why do we do the Big Read? According to the National Endowment for the Arts, “The NEA Big Read broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. Showcasing a diverse range of themes, voices, and perspectives, the NEA Big Read aims to inspire conversation and discovery.  Studies show that reading for pleasure reduces stress, heightens empathy… and makes us more active and aware citizens.”

This fall marks the eighth year that Hope College and the greater Holland community have participated in this NEA/Hope College Big Read Lakeshore event.  We have read and talked about such diverse offerings as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried; Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying; Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine; Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven; Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies; Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea; and this year, An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo, the current U.S. poet laureate. 

As the fortunate professor who gets to teach the secondary English methods class here at Hope, I have the honor each fall to work with Hope’s secondary English majors and minors as we read the selected Big Read book and prepare to facilitate book discussions at public and private venues in the Holland area.  

Since classes started at the end of August, my eleven students and I have been reading, studying, and talking about Harjo’s book.  We are researching this collection of writings as a piece of literature, looking into the background and life of the author, and discovering information about the history of the Indigenous people of North America.  We are also learning about “Indian schools” and discussing main ideas, themes, takeaways, and lessons learned from reading and studying this book of poems (and other short pieces).

Here is what my very “cool kids” in English 380 are saying about Joy Harjo’s American Sunrise:

“Harjo blends masterful poetry and poignant language to remind us all of the importance of memory.” 

–Seth Piersma

An American Sunrise takes the reader on a journey that encompasses the pain, compassion, and culture that Native Americans have experienced over the years. Harjo beautifully writes from multiple perspectives, bringing those stories to life.” 

–Halle Carpenter

“A book of poems, songs, and prose, An American Sunrise brings to life the real, raw emotions felt by Harjo regarding her Native American ancestors who were wrongfully extracted from their homes during the Trail of Tears. ” 

–Maleah Teusink

“An American Sunrise is a beautiful work that encompasses the struggles of Native Americans interwoven with stories of Harjo’s own life.” 

–Olivia Lewis 

“Whether one is looking for poetry about the beauty of nature or prose about lingering generational trauma, An American Sunrise allows readers to step into her shoes.  Joy Harjo opens up the doors to what it means to be an Indigenous member of the Mvskoke people living in modern day America.”  

–Andrea Lowing

 “Joy Harjo showcases the pain and suffering her people experienced, but she doesn’t only focus on the pain: she provides examples of joyful times and happy traditions that make An American Sunrise such a thought provoking and enlightening read.”  

–Alison Laper 

Harjo’s journey to find meaning in her past is highlighted by pain, death, and horrors, but it also includes sparks of joy and hope.” 

–Ryan Eder 

 “Harjo amplifies the voices of the Mvskoke tribe through her rich tone, intricate detailing, and a passion for writing.”  

–Payton Johnson  

An American Sunrise allows outsiders a window to see into the social and personal injustices inflicted on Harjo’s ancestors.”

–Adolfo Magarin

An American Sunrise allows readers to become immersed in the history of Harjo’s family and the struggles, traditions, and triumphs that many Native Americans experience today.”  

–Nancy Gately

 “An American Sunrise is a historical, personal, and necessary narrative of humanity for contemporary audiences.” 

–Abby Hamilton

Consider attending a Big Read Lakeshore speaker or book discussion event. Joy Harjo will appear at a virtual event Monday, Oct. 25, at 7pm. More information on all Big Read events can be found at

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